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Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl (Chief Earl Stephens) stands next to a replica of the Ni'isjoohl memorial pole in the Nisga'a Village of Laxgalts’ap, B.C.Nisga’a Nation/Handout

Before the Museum of Scotland opened to the public on Monday, a group of seven Nisga’a delegates marched into its Living Lands gallery wearing ceremonial regalia and singing traditional songs. They were there to visit a totem pole that had been taken from their village in Northwestern British Columbia nearly 100 years ago – and which may be headed back to Nisga’a territory.

“We were singing as a family but also to the pole so it could recognize us,” said Amy Parent, whose Nisga’a name is Noxs Ts’aawit, hours after seeing the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole for the first time. Carved and erected in the 1850s or 60s, it was created to honour a warrior, Ts’wawit, who was next in line to be chief when he died in a battle with a neighbouring Nation. Ts’wawit was the son of Joanna Moody – Dr. Parent’s great-great-great-grandmother.

“We could feel the breath of our ancestors,” said Dr. Parent, who is Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Education and Governance at Simon Fraser University.

“I really do feel the ancestors in there,” added Chief Earl Stephens/Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl, Ms. Moody’s great-great-grandson, and Dr. Parent’s uncle. Chief Stephens said he laid his hand on the pole, “to tell them that I’m here.”

The delegation travelled this weekend from B.C. to Edinburgh to begin in-person repatriation negotiations to have the pole returned to the Nisga’a Nation.

Chief Stephens shows the design work of his regalia.Nisga’a Nation/Handout

“We communicated that we expect the return of our memorial pole without conditions before we leave Scotland on Aug. 26,” said Dr. Parent after the meeting, expressing optimism about reaching an agreement with the museum this week. “At this point, we’re feeling that they are on the journey with us.”

Museum director Christopher Breward also struck a positive tone on Monday. “It was a profoundly moving morning of listening, and observing the Nisga’a representatives reconnecting with the pole,” he told The Globe and Mail. Still, he added, “these processes do take time.”

According to Dr. Parent, museum officials agreed on Monday to provide access to other Nisga’a cultural belongings housed at the museum – some of which are in storage; they acknowledged that oral tradition is equivalent to the written word in these repatriation discussions; and they agreed to make immediate changes to how the pole is housed.

Its current plaque is short on information and context. And the pole is installed among artifacts from other First Nations. “From the North American arctic to the deserts of Australia, the peoples in this gallery lead contemporary lives, but their traditional values are based on a deep connection to the land,” the entrance plaque to the gallery reads, in part.

Dr. Parent described the environment in the space as almost carnival-like: “It’s this juxtaposition of seeing our ancestors laying in state … and this hodgepodge and mishmash of Indigenous cultures and other kind of nostalgic relics from other places.” She said the room was dark with stage-like lighting, and that it was quite loud. “So we’re trying to sing our songs through this cacophony of noise. In a lot of ways it’s symbolic of colonialism.”

The pole was taken from the village of Ank’idaa in Northwestern B.C.’s Naas Valley in 1929 by the Canadian ethnographer Marius Barbeau, while the village’s inhabitants were away gathering food; likely fishing. Imagine returning from a trip to the grocery store, says Dr. Parent, to find the government has sold your house and allowed an anthropologist to take your belongings.

“It was stolen,” says Dr. Parent. “He never followed Nisga’a law, our protocols. Our family member, Joanna Moody, she never gave up ownership to the pole. We never gave the government permission to do that. We were in a time of genocide.”

Seven delegates from the Nisga'a First Nation travelled from B.C. to Edinburgh to begin in-person repatriation negotiations to have the pole returned to the Nisga’a Nation.HO/The Canadian Press

She says that, in accordance with Canadian law at the time, Mr. Barbeau obtained permission from the government, which allowed items considered to be of historical importance to be removed if they were in abandoned villages or not cared for. But this village had not been abandoned, Dr. Parent points out.

It took about a year to transport the pole, first along the Naas River to Prince Rupert, then east across Canada by train, and finally over to Scotland by ship. It was purchased by what was then the Royal Scottish Museum. While a bill of sale has not been found, Dr. Parent says researchers have located a quote from Mr. Barbeau for $400 to $600, plus an additional $100 for transportation costs.

Installed in 1930, the pole is described by Dr. Breward as a significant piece for the museum.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) calls for access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction with Indigenous peoples concerned.

“Every symbol on that pole represents something and a story to the family,” said Chief Stephens.

In 2019, the Scottish museum introduced greater transparency to the repatriation process. The Nisga’a application is the first for cultural objects since that procedural change.

There is room for the pole, Dr. Parent says, back home, in front of the Nisga’a Museum in Laxgaltsʼap, B.C. “It was built with the intention to house the return of priceless Nisga’a cultural belongings and artifacts.” The museum’s director, Theresa Schober, was part of the delegation.

The Nisga’a will meet on Tuesday with Scottish government officials and then on Wednesday with the museum’s board chair before the delegation’s scheduled departure on Friday.

For all the positive talk, the two parties have fundamentally different approaches. The Nisga’a say they expect their laws and procedures to be “centred and respected,” rather than following a procedure that is dictated by legislation. But Dr. Breward says the museum must follow the rules in place: Museum officials make a recommendation to the government-appointed board, which makes the decision whether to deaccession and transfer objects – and must receive approval from the government.

Still, he expressed optimism. “We are beginning to pull together that evidence that we could present in order to make that recommendation to the board,” said Dr. Breward. “So we are on that journey.”